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A Valentine’s Day Book Review

Happy Valentine’s Day! And now, a book review about love:

 

Book critic, William Deresiewicz, in The New York Times, wrote that Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot was not about marriage, or even love at all, but like his other novels, was primarily about “the drama of coming of age.” This review was laced with acidic undertones of condescension and a just-below-the-surface but obvious dislike of most of Eugenides’ work. As an aside, I am never completely smitten with an author’s work. There is always something about it that I don’t like. You don’t spend your life criticizing the written word and retain the ability to turn that off. Regardless, I will never write a negative book review. I don’t believe it is helpful to anyone, least of all the author. If I really looked down upon that author’s work, my agenda would be better served to keep mum about the author altogether. The worst review is no review, in my mind.

Anyway, Deresiewicz’s interpretation of this novel was precisely my own…at first. I felt exactly the same way. I’d listened to the audio performance, and after the last words, I looked around at the NJ Turnpike and thought, and? On the surface, this novel is about a trio of college kids who graduate and then try and figure out life, love and opportunity. Nothing actually comes to pass. Nobody appears to make any sort of satisfying transformation. In fact, nobody gets what they want, either. Then, sitting in traffic, I listened to a short, accompanying interview with Eugenides, which I thought would shed some light on what he was trying to do with The Marriage Plot. It ended by the time traffic started moving, leaving the novel unilluminated. I lit a cigarette and wrote off Eugenides, deciding not to read the next book he publishes a decade from now (he writes a book every ten years or so.)

Never before have I found the aftertaste of a novel to be more powerful than the novel itself. In the days that followed my reading of The Marriage Plot, the novel sank into my brain like a slow wave of awareness overcoming me. Bits of it would return and smack me in the face as I looked at love and life around me. Deresiewicz entirely missed the point. This was not a novel about young people finding their way in the world, it was a novel about the consequentiality of love in our time. The marriage plot refers to the structure of a Victorian novel in which marriage was the be-all and end-all. The finality of marriage in that time was what made it so important and so dramatic and so weighty for the characters to get married or to pursue that. It was the ultimate goal of love, a move to secure financial goals, societal goals and familial expectations. The love itself was really sort of secondary. Now, Eugenides subtly but brilliantly asserts in his novel, the consequentiality of our love is not what we do with it, but what it does to us. With marriage stripped of its weight, becoming a sort of romantic, knee-jerk impulse or a strategic financial move, love takes on a life and weight of its own. While love was once a vehicle used to travel to marriage, it is now a vehicle to travel to transformation, which is not a destination or an end-goal at all, but an on-going journey. It’s about the journey, not really where you end up, which is why in Eugenides’ novel, nobody ends up anywhere. They continue their journey.

The novel’s female character, Madeleine, is stifled by her love. She becomes an in-service, overshadowed mistress to her boyfriend, Leonard, who has a significant mental illness. She’s intelligent and beautiful and could probably have any man she wants, yet because she loves Leonard, she installs herself under the crushing weight of the man and his illness. Leonard himself appears to be perfectly healthy in the beginning of the novel, but when he falls in love with Madeleine and realizes that this has an actual affect on him—it changes his behavior, his thoughts, his motivations, his life—he falls into his mental illness and appears to swim about helplessly and almost indulgently in the throes of it, Madeleine’s service to him only bolstering and enabling that illness.

The third character, Mitchell, spends almost the entire novel in love with Madeleine. The very idea of her motivates him to travel around the world, to alter his perception of people and of life and love, and then at the very end, because love is no longer locked into the finality of marriage or the weight of that institution, this changes for Mitchell and, now motivated by the love he used to feel for Madeleine, his journey takes a turn and continues.

The Marriage Plot was a powerful snapshot of what has happened to love, or rather its impact, and the author makes no definite comment about the consequences of that. Like a poet, he seems to prefer to leave his assertions up to interpretation. Its impact still hits me sometimes, as I recall a phrase or a situation and apply it to my own life or those around me.

In the novel, Leonard is a scientist studying yeast cells, which are interesting because they closely resemble human sex cells. During a heated argument with Madeleine, he makes the observation that these yeast cells, when in crisis, immediately separate as a matter of course because it is easier to protect themselves as single cells in the face of crisis. I would have paid full cover price just to let Eugenides drop this one exquisite metaphor on me.

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